Is the Teen Brain Too Rational? [Preview]

With the decision-making areas of their brains still developing, teenagers show poor judgment in risky situations. Thinking less logically may be the answer.

Some teens have certainly been "scared straight" by traditional intervention programs. But for the most part, such programs have not done much to deter risky behavior--and, even worse, they may actually be encouraging it.

Consider the adolescent who puts his odds of becoming infected with HIV through a single act of unprotected sex at 5050... and then learns through his intervention program that his true risk is one in 500 at most. The programs emphasis on inundating teens with risk information could well backfire, making them more rather than less likely to have unprotected sex or engage in other risky actions.

To improve the success of intervention efforts, we are testing a strategy fundamentally different from the one that traditional programs are based on: rather than asking teens to rationally balance risks and benefits, we are training them to think less logically and more intuitively--the way mature adults do, in other words.

Accentuate the Intuitive
This new strategy is based on a theory jointly proposed about 20 years ago by one of us (Reyna) and Charles Brainerd, now at Cornell University. Called fuzzy-trace theory, it originally was regarded as quite radical. Today, however, it can be described as an "establishment" theory of cognitive development because research has confirmed so many of its surprising predictions. It offers an explanation for the evolution of behaviors and memories from childhood, through adolescence and on to adulthood based on changes that occur in the way we reason. A decade ago fuzzy-trace theory predicted and discovered the counterintuitive finding that some false memories are more stable over time than true memories, among other novel findings.

Fuzzy trace is a so-called dual-processes theory positing that people rely on two quite different ways of reasoning to reach conclusions about situations confronting them. The first way is a deliberative, analytical approach that relies on details, such as those collected during rote exercises and fact memorization. This verbatim style of reasoning involves the kind of computational processing assumed by risk-intervention programs, when risks are traded off precisely against rewards. Far from being analytical, the second, or "fuzzy," style of reasoning occurs unconsciously and above all involves intuition, allowing people to penetrate quickly to the gist, or bottom line, of a situation. (The word "trace" in fuzzy-trace theory refers to the mental pictures, or traces, that collectively constitute memory.)

Fuzzy-trace theorys different modes of reasoning--verbatim and gist--are by no means mutually exclusive and can actually operate in the same person at the same time. But each predominates at different stages of life in normal human development.

Legendary developmental psychologist Jean Piaget contended that we start off as intuitive children who become analytical adults. Fuzzy-trace theory reverses things, proposing instead that the verbatim mode of reasoning reigns during childhood and adolescence. Then, with maturity, gist thinking takes over as we make decisions that disregard distracting details and instead are filtered through our experience, emotions, worldview, education and other factors.

The intuitive, gist-based approach to decision making tends to yield a "simple" answer--a black-and-white conclusion of good or bad, safe or hazardous, for example. Yet gist appears to be the more advanced form of reasoning, because the tendency to base decisions on gist increases with age, experience and expertise, as shown by research with children and adults.

Fuzzy-Trace Theory and Risk
When it comes to handling risks, fuzzy-trace theory predicts that mature decision makers will not deliberate about the degree of risk and the magnitude of benefits if a nontrivial chance of a catastrophic or health-compromising outcome exists. In contrast, the verbatim-based, analytical approach of adolescents faced with a risky situation would be expected to take longer. And indeed, studies comparing the reaction times in milliseconds for adults and adolescents to questions such as "Is it a good idea to set your hair on fire?" and "Is it a good idea to drink a bottle of Drano?" show that adults respond faster than teens.

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